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An explosive debate on racial bias marks Florida’s move to arm teachers, over educators’ objections

Wendy Behrend, a school crossing guard who was on duty when a shooter opened fire in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, pays her respects at a memorial for those killed, on the first anniversary of the shooting, on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A black lawmaker was moved to tears on the floor of the Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday, in a dramatic confrontation over race and gun violence that convulsed Tallahassee.

The bitter partisan debate left the Democratic lawmaker, Shevrin Jones from South Florida, putting his Republican colleagues on notice, warning them, “Don’t dare call me a racist.” At issue was a request by Jones that teachers who might soon wield guns in classrooms endeavor to acknowledge their own prejudices. The suggestion led a white Republican to claim that Jones was slandering teachers.

The bruising battle reached a climax on Wednesday as Republicans succeeded in advancing, on a virtually party-line vote, a bill allowing classroom teachers to carry firearms. The legislation, which cleared the state Senate last week, now goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, for his signature. He is expected to give his approval.

The bill would expand the school guardian program, developed in the wake of the shooting last year that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Last year’s legislative package put guns in the hands of certain school employees, but not teachers. The new legislation would undo that exception, based on the determination by a commission investigating the February 2018 massacre that some of the bloodshed could have been prevented if more staff inside the building had been armed.

Numerous states already allow teachers to have guns in classrooms. The approach gained currency following the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Now, it’s an idea backed by President Trump, as well as by the National Rifle Association, which exercises vast influence in Tallahassee.

It is opposed, however, by educators statewide. Their objections were amplified on the House floor by Democrats, who also cited two incidents on Tuesday as proof that greater access to guns on campuses would be unwise. At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a gunman killed two students and injured four others. Earlier in the day, a gun went off in a school resource officer’s holster in a middle school cafeteria in Wesley Chapel, Fla. No one was injured.

“We see accidents happening every day,” said Democratic state Rep. Susan Valdes, a former school board member from Tampa. “I must stand with the children who have asked me, ‘Don’t put more guns in our schools.’”

Wary Democrats offered a raft of amendments to the House bill this week. The addition proposed by Jones would have required school faculty and staff members who choose to carry firearms to undergo implicit bias training.

“What happens when that teacher,” Jones asked, “feels threatened?”

Quick to the trigger, a teacher could then point to the state’s “stand your ground” defense, he reasoned. A student caught on the wrong end of a gun barrel would have no chance to respond.

The “stand your ground” justification for the use of force became a flash point in 2012, when authorities in Sanford, Fla., said it was the reason they did not arrest George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, after he killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

To some, the suggestion that implicit bias operates in the classroom unfairly maligned teachers.

Rep. Toby Overdorf, a Republican whose district includes parts of the state’s Treasure Coast, said he took issue with hearing “teachers called racist,” as well as with the suggestion “they can’t understand the different colors of people.”

“I am just really disturbed as to where the depths of these arguments are going when you’re questioning these people,” he added, noting that it was also wrong to call teachers “druggies.”

Democrats replied they had leveled no such accusations.

“I didn’t hear anybody call teachers racists,” state Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa bluntly observed

Jones had harsher words for his colleagues. When he rose to conclude debate on the amendment, he was seething with anger. At first, all he could do was murmur, “Wow. Wow.”

Then, he found the language to defend himself, explaining the rationale for his amendment.

“I asked for implicit bias training because we’re talking about black boys and girls who are getting murdered by police officers,” he said. “There are bad police officers and there are bad teachers. I never called them racist, but I’m giving you reality.”

He claimed the chamber’s Republican leaders could not “care less” about the experiences that might cause his black constituents to fear an armed teacher. The amendment, he said, was intended for these marginalized groups, whose perspective he understood because of his own racial identity. Someone with a gun, he told them, might not “look at me like they look at you.”

Similarly, he explained, his voice breaking, a teacher might “look at that boy who has dreads in his hair and might be intimidated by him.”

“I fight for the people I fight for,” Jones concluded. “Don’t insult me for fighting for the people I serve.”

The amendment failed, as did every single one of the Democratic proposals.

The bill ultimately advanced 65 to 47, with a handful of Republicans joining a united Democratic caucus in dissent.

When the vote was tallied, Jones was not present in the chamber. He had been rushed to the hospital Wednesday morning, later released with a diagnosis of vertigo.

“Following the emotional debate yesterday, I am deeply disappointed to have missed today’s vote,” he said in a news release. “As I’ve reiterated time and again, teachers should not be responsible for carrying weapons and patrolling the campuses of students they are tasked with educating.”

The legislation includes a number of other components that boast bipartisan support, including new safety protocols and record-keeping requirements.

But allowing classrooms teachers to carry guns — following screening and instruction from local sheriffs — is deeply divisive.

Among the idea’s critics are survivors of the shooting last year in Parkland. Emma González called the idea “stupid” in a “60 Minutes” interview last year. Her classmate David Hogg said it would put students in danger and boost gun sales, “promoting the NRA’s deadly agenda.”

Republican lawmakers defended the expansion of the guardian program by arguing that it merely creates a “pathway” for teachers to arm themselves, as state Rep. Dane Eagle of Cape Coral said on the House floor on Wednesday. He stressed the solution was “not a mandate.”

Still, educators oppose the move. Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said putting guns in classrooms was the “wrong conversation.”

Several school boards have preemptively voted to bar teachers from carrying guns. And Florida voters oppose allowing trained teachers to arm themselves, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in March.

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